Only a few years ago, labor automation seemed like a futuristic nice-to-have rather than a serious necessity for food producers. Now, most vegetable producers view automation on some level as essential to the success of their business.
Consumer trends and tastes come and go. However, there are constants in the food industry that remain the same: maximizing yield, waste reduction, production line reliability, hygiene and safety.
Automation has already proven its value across all these areas. From improved sanitation and more efficient processes, to removing the need for staff training, reducing the risk of injury and minimizing waste, to enabling sophisticated grading for multiple product streams, the benefits are significant and growing. As a result, automation is also driving growth.
In addition, experts have done away with the old-fashioned view that automation will put millions of people out of work. In fact, our current workforce has proven itself unsustainable. Automation is the answer to that issue, and it is now hailed to become a net job creator.
Automation is making seasonal labor shortage a thing of the past
Let’s start with the unsustainability of the current labor market. A major long-term challenge to efficient vegetable production has been the variabilities associated with seasonal labor. At harvest time, seasonal workers are a traditional farming necessity. Yet this arrangement is also one fraught with challenges of availability and inconsistent standards.
As automation is adopted across the fresh vegetable produce sector, we are already seeing the need for seasonal labor drop. In California, for instance, with its variable climate, vegetable producers are able to move equipment around between their production locations to meet seasonal demand. As a result, they require a fraction of the seasonal labor they once did and it’s much easier to move machines around than people.
For some sectors, mechanization is very established. According to the California Farm Bureau Federation, tomato processors that supply soup, pasta and pizza sauce brands, for example, have already seen a 90% saving in automated labor over hand harvesting.
The truth is, when it comes to fresh vegetables, machines only have to do a better job than humans to be an improvement. And humans are far from perfect when it comes to harvesting and handling vegetables.
Fastest way to reduce contamination in food production: remove humans
Avoiding contamination of fresh vegetable products is another challenge being overcome by automated processes. Contamination comes in many forms: microbial, foreign matter and chemical being the main culprits. Microbial contamination can almost always be traced to either animal bio waste in the field, or human workers.
According to the FDA, workers can carry microbial pathogens on their skin, hair, hands, in their digestive systems or respiratory tracts. Unless they follow specific food protection principles, they can unintentionally contaminate fresh produce and fresh-cut produce, food contact surfaces, water supplies or other workers.
FDA guidelines for staff training around hygiene run to pages covering everything from toilet facilities to full production line sanitisation. Remove human workers from the vegetable production line and this risk is lowered instantly. Without humans, it’s possible to maintain a close-to-sterile environment that almost eliminates microbial contamination risk once the fresh cut produce enters the facility.
Many QSR customers no longer accept manual vegetable sorting
It is for reasons of food hygiene among others that many Quick Service Restaurant businesses are no longer accepting products that have been manually sorted. Other reasons include efficiency, sustainability and flexibility that only automated operations can realistically provide.
Another reason could be consumers swinging more towards organic food. In recent research published by Global Web Index, 23% of US fast food customers stated that organic ingredients were important to them. If a restaurant is to serve organic food, it must be able to provide data to that effect: digital data preferably.
Consumer apps are already available that scan food labels in store showing the organic credentials of any product. It is therefore appealing to organic food brands to engage with suppliers with a demonstrably, transparent and easily accessible data trail.
The QSR and the wider restaurant sector in the US are subject to strict compliance regulations, issued by the FDA. Any food outlet that serves food directly to the public is open to scrutiny around food safety, transportation and most recently, nutritional labelling. The better a fresh vegetable producer can prove the safety of their fresh cut or frozen produce, the more likely a QSR customer will be to use them.
Digitalization of food production requires automation
Successful automation hinges on effective generation, sharing and utilisation of data throughout the processing facility and along the supply chain. This is critical to vegetable production of the future as our population grows and logistics facilitate even greater reach.
As the supply chain expands, all food outlets must be able to trace any contamination that may occur, regardless of how many miles separate the end user and the source. Traceback and Recall has its own section in the FDA regulatory information, recommending ways in which food producers can trace the source of any fresh produce in the event of a recall.
As our global population grows, we are going to become increasingly reliant on digital data. Gathering and sharing this data can’t be achieved without automation and IoT technologies. Humans will be required to analyse and use the data meaningfully, but only machines can generate the data we will all rely on.